After falling steadily since the 1960s, America’s standard of living is on the verge of collapse. This statement may seem counterintuitive, considering all of the pleasures so many of us enjoy: 50-inch TV screens and fabulous electronic gizmos that put a world of knowledge and entertainment at our instant command; Kobe beef hamburgers seasoned with pink Himalayan salt; battery-powered luxury cars that accelerate from zero to 60 in under four seconds; photo safaris in the Serengeti and vacation cruises to the fjords of Norway and the Galapagos Islands; graphite-frame mountain bike and kayaks, bulletproof tuxedos and down parkas that can keep us warm at minus 30 degrees. What king or emperor ever enjoyed such easy and complete command of his environment?
And yet, despite this impressive list of amenities, the things that truly matter have slipped beyond the reach of the broad middle class. Stay-at-home moms have become a relative rarity, early retirement for private-sector employees a financial impossibility. First-class health care is now reserved for the few who can afford concierge care; four-year private colleges, for the sons and daughters of households able and willing to take on six-figure debt. We buy most of our “stuff” at warehouses rather than at department stores.
Nowhere is the decline in our standard of living more obvious and infuriating than in public transportation. Sixty years ago, the average passenger train offered a level of luxury that by today’s standards would befit a pasha. Linen tablecloths, sterling silver and Spode china were routine dining-car fare for all travelers. Today, such cars and the full menus they offered have been replaced by vendors who will sell us a slice of processed cheese on stale bread for $10. Air travelers have fared far worse, crammed into seats so tight that one cannot even open a newspaper or recline in comfort. More recently, air passengers have taken on the role of baggage handlers. Still worse is that they are being charged as much as $35 for the privilege of hauling their own luggage and storing it in overhead bins. As a result, boarding a plane has become an ordeal, a herding process that can take the better part of an hour. If America is so wealthy, as we keep hearing ad nauseum, than why are public amenities so squalid? And why can’t households with two professional incomes afford to put their kids through college without borrowing heavily against their homes?
The stark truth that follows from the observations above is that, even after going deeply into hock, most Americans can no longer afford many of the things that the middle class took for granted until relatively recently. How could this have happened? Are the banksters to blame for lending us into an inescapable condition of indentured servitude? Did the Guvvamint trick us by inflating assets while devaluing labor and saving? Were we seduced by bread and circuses to overlook the erosion of the American Dream? These are the questions I ask you, dear readers, to consider this week.